Criminal Justice Reform in Montana

Problem

Montana suffers from an overcrowded and understaffed prison system. According to the 2015 Sentencing Commission’s report, incarcerations grew by 12% from 2012 to 2015, and drug-related offenses accounted for 53% of the increase in total arrests. Substance abuse offenses are the driving force behind an increasing incarceration rate, followed by probation and parole violations. And as a result of an overcrowded prison population, corrections spending increased by $51 million from 2006 to 2014.

With non-violent drug offenders and probation violators comprising the bulk of the prison population, corrections spending should be redirected toward rehabilitative programs that will help reduce recidivism. If the nonviolent population of offenders were offered alternatives to incarceration, prison beds could be reserved for violent criminals.

Solution

To kickstart Montana’s criminal justice reform initiative, Montana implemented legislation to focus on prison overcrowding, recidivism, and substance abuse within the criminal justice system in 2015. Following the Sentencing Commission’s report, Montana launched several reforms in 2017, including:

  • Legislation requiring the court to develop a prosecution diversion program for low-level, non-violent offenders and use pretrial risk assessment tools; and
  • Legislation for waiving or reducing jail time for some first-time misdemeanor offenses and eliminating mandatory minimums for felony drug offenses.

In 2019, Montana updated its sentencing code so that when sentencing felons the judge will consider alternatives to sentences, if applicable.

Results

By saving millions on corrections spending from these reforms, Montana hopes to reinvest funds into different rehabilitative and reentry programs to help reduce recidivism and keep people out of prison. Montana has successfully reduced the number of felons which are under parole supervision since 2017 and 2018. In 2018, 20% more parole releases were approved compared to previous years, creating more room for dangerous and violent offenders.

Identification of legislation should not be considered an endorsement of support of, or opposition to, such bills.